QUICK STORY: There’s a Native-owned restaurant in Zuni Pueblo called Chu Chu’s that has some absolutely amazing green chili and cheese fries. It’s a beautiful little establishment, providing an important service to the Zuni people: it provides many of the foods that mainstream America gets to enjoy but with a Pueblo (and New Mexican) twist. Native entrepreneurs—you’re liable to walk through a birthday party or a first date or just someone who wanted to enjoy a pizza.
Chu Chu’s also provides another important service for Zuni (A:shiwi) people: it is one of the few places where a person can get reliable Internet service. Zuni is a remote location where there is over 60 percent unemployment and very little investment into the area. Some 80 percent of Zuni people rely upon art for income—there are many Native communities with comparable numbers. Therefore, Chu Chu’s Internet access is crucial to the success and survival of the many artisans who support themselves by marketing their beautiful pottery and weaving and carving on-line. Chu Chu’s, and places like it within rural areas, literally become lifelines for an economy that provides economic development, self-determination and sovereignty for places where there has been almost zero investment.
WHY AM I TELLING THIS? Unfortunately, the new Federal Communications Commission regulations, passed by the Republican-controlled FCC 3-2 vote, will have a significant effect on remote Native homelands and places like Chu Chu’s and their ability to provide service for Native artisans and other folks who depends on internet access to provide for their families.
First, assume that Native people simply do not have access to the Internet the same way that most of America does. In fact the FCC’s own 2016 Broadband Progress Report that 41 percent of Tribal lands do not have broadband access. That means that even before the FCC took away net neutrality this week, economically and educationally vulnerable Native communities were already missing out on all of the benefits of widespread Internet usage. Native people trail the rest of the United States in graduation from high school and college, but no broadband makes things like web classes and Running Start programs inaccessible. Native communities trail the rest of the United States in start-up funding for entrepreneurial endeavors, and no broadband makes connecting for STEM or coding programs impractical.
Now, in these rural communities where there are very few—if any—broadband options, the FCC has ostensibly given the Internet providers the absolute ability to charge whatever they want. The market does not protect areas where there is no competition, and in most Native communities there is no competition for Internet service providers (if it protects any areas at all).
What that means, in practical terms, is that places like Chu Chu’s may not be able to provide the same lifeline services that it provides for the community. For my non-Native friends out there, understand that almost every Native community has a place like Chu-Chu’s where everyone gathers for a bit of Internet service and hopefully sell a hand drum or a carving or some earrings on their Facebook page. Understand also, that most of the time we are talking about 50 percent PLUS unemployment—that unemployment is not due to laziness or lack of initiative. Instead, it is due to a lack of infrastructure that is the direct result of government policies. And since Internet service is that rare in our communities—most business is done on cell phones on regional carriers; when there is service, the service is so weak oftentimes artisans and entrepreneurs have a very hard time uploading images of their work to platforms where they can sell.
So it’s a big deal. Bigger than it is for the rest of the United States, even.
HOW YOU CAN HELP. Look, I know folks are talking about reversing these new rules by virtue of the Congressional Review Act. Cool. Go on and reverse it (although I’ll believe it when I see it). I’ve been told that Trump was gonna be impeached many, many times.
Here’s the thing: the rules were ALREADY skewed before these new rules went into place. Native people were already way behind in this digital economy. These new rules just made it worse. Here’s a couple of things you can do to help in the immediate:
1) SUPPORT NATIVE ARTISTS. Put some money in their pockets. Look, support Native artists everyplace, absolutely. Reservation-based artists have particular challenges simply because of how remote they are and how sporadic the technology is. The Internet is often the only outlet that these brilliant artists have and so it’s crucial that the work that they are allowed to get out there. Sometimes we have to affirmatively look for reservation-artists to make sure that their work is supported and appreciated. Collectives like Bethany Yellowtail that highlights Native artists is a great conduit for that work. Also support Native businesses like Chu Chu’s that serve as a conduit for promoting reservation economies.
2) SUPPORT THE WORK OF YESWECODE.org. We have to create coding opportunities and support infrastructure building within our communities. YesWeCode.org is one such organization that is working to create coders within Native communities.
3) CALL YOUR CONGRESS PERSON. Sure, support Congress People utilizing the Congressional Review Act to repeal these new rules. I have very little faith in this process, but it couldn’t hurt. But also understand that this problem is MUCH bigger than these new FCC rules. It’s a matter of investment and existed LONG before these new rules. REAL progress on this issue within Native communities will require infrastructure, a lot of money and commitment that is far outside simply reacting to a crisis.
Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and a storyteller. He is a member of the Blackfeet (Amskapikipikuni) Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is the co-host of the Breakdances With Wolves: Indigenous Pirate Radio podcast. He can be reached at Instagram and Twitter at: @BigIndianGya